Did Theater Critics Deepen the Great Depression?: Echoes

Assailing those responsible for the continuing Great Depression was a very serious business in the early 1930s. Wall Street financiers, commodity speculators, bankers foreclosing on homes, employers cutting wages and jobs -- all weathered fierce public criticism and bitter jokes at their expense.

In March 1932, Representative William Sirovich, a Democrat of New York, identified new miscreants: drama critics. The New York Times reported that Sirovich, chairman of the Patents, Trademarks and Copyrights Committee, charged that the theater business was on the rocks due to “malicious criticism” by critics posing as “know-it-alls.”

“Producers spend hundreds of thousands getting a play ready,” Sirovich said. “When they get it to New York, the drama critics close it.”

Sirovich claimed that only 10 of New York’s 90 theater venues were active and that 80 percent of new plays were financial failures, precisely because ill-trained, hostile critics blasted almost everything. They “should be subjected to examination before they are allowed to practice their profession,” just like doctors and lawyers, he said. His House colleagues agreed to invite these business wreckers to defend themselves at a congressional hearing.

Sirovich called on 18 well-known reviewers to attend, arguing that they were “trampling upon the rights of authors and dramatists and depriving them of their constitutional right to the protection of their intellectual property.”

The consequences had been dire, he charged: producers bankrupted and thousands of jobs vaporized. Stagehands, musicians, dressmakers, carpenters, mechanics and actors searched in vain for positions, while commercial properties worth millions stood idle. Worse, “harsh and unjust” reviews alienated the theater-going public, accelerating their drift to the movies.

The reviewers declined to come to Washington. And in its second act, Sirovich’s tragic script was rewritten by critics as a mocking comedy. The drama critic John Anderson said simply, “This is ridiculous.” Accusing critics of injuring the theater was as silly as “saying that newspapers were responsible for the Depression by quoting stock market reports.” Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times invited Sirovich to meet with critics in New York, “so we can ask him some questions about the government.” Others added that if politicians’ qualifications for office were rigorously checked, there would never be a quorum in Congress.

George Jean Nathan slyly suggested the hearings be held in Munich, whereas the New York Herald Tribune’s Percy Hammond quoted an old Spanish proverb: “It’s a waste of lather to shave an ass.” In the New Yorker, E.B. White suggested reducing Sirovich’s salary to help balance the budget, “as he is obviously overpaid.”

The coup de grace soon followed: The congressman was a failed playwright. His 1924 play, “Schemers,” which also took aim at drama critics, was “retired” after only a handful of performances.

New York journalists surely delivered unrecorded wisecracks on learning March 25 that a kidney stone had felled Sirovich on the House floor, terminating his crusade. Joseph Wood Krutch of the Nation concluded that dreadful plays were at fault. “Adult books are far commoner than adult plays. Sentimentality, infantile morality, and cheap evasions of the truth” were pervasive.

In time, the Depression would generate a new American theater, translating tough realities to the stage. But even then, not all the critics would applaud.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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